This is a picture of Nick and Nora Charles, a fictional couple who, for me, defines the ultimate in healthy, committed relationships. I realize that, because they are not real, this statement could easily be questioned – after all, it’s not hard to make an ideal out of people who aren’t real. However, the fact that the fictional relationship of a fictional couple popularized in the 1930’s, (a period of time in our culture when the boundaries of marriage remained highly uncontested), still resonates eighty years later lends weight to the excellence of their example.
For those unfamiliar with Nick and Nora Charles, they are the married protagonists of Dashiell Hammett’s 1934 novel, The Thin Man. The book was later made into a wildly popular film series with William Powell and Myrna Loy. Nick is older and Nora younger, and both appear to be happy in their, presumably, monogamous relationship. In this, they are quite conventional. And yet, this apparently conventional relationship allows for the fact that women find Nick quite attractive. In fact, women love Nick, and Nick, it is implied, has loved quite a few in return. As for Nora, men tend to adore her the moment she opens her mouth, and she, for her part, openly appreciates beautiful men.
And yet, the sexual attraction they both engender in, and display towards, members of the opposite sex in no way threatens their superficially conventional relationship. They treat each other, and their marriage with equal parts respect and irreverence, and they make their relationship work in a way unique to them.
Why do I bring this up? Because the dynamic Nick and Nora share is, in my experience, somewhat rare. Their relationship represents an ideal, one that transcends the monogamy vs. non-monogamy debate currently gaining steam in the United States’ liberal / conservative culture war.
Contrary to the rhetoric on both sides of this particular divide, monogamy is neither “natural,” as staunch proponents suggest, nor is it particularly “unnatural,” (though research into our evolution and biology may suggest that humans were, originally, a harem species like many in nature from lions to gorillas). Monogamy also isn’t “supernatural” as blogger Matt Walsh suggested in a post defending monogamy’s righteous rightness. What monogamy is, is a choice – a personal choice that is made, either implicitly or explicitly, by individual couples.
For some couples, monogamy is critical to the health of their relationship. If both partners honor their mutual choice to remain monogamous, then that is inarguably the best choice for them. Whether they make that choice based on religious faith or personal preference doesn’t matter so long as both partners agree.
For other couples, monogamy could, quite possibly, lead to dissatisfaction in what might otherwise be a very happy relationship. As a result, couples that understand this about themselves and their relationship make a responsible choice in choosing non-monogamy, polyamory, or any other form of open relationship. So long as both partners agree to a set of parameters regarding the open nature of their relationship, this is an equally salutary choice. The critical component is that both partners honor the parameters they’ve set.
There is no single answer to the question of what makes for a healthy relationship. There are too many variables involved because people are variable. Arguably, the most universal quality shared by members of our species is that we are all individually different. If we were the same, perhaps monogamy, (or non-monogamy), would be the silver bullet. We would have one religion, (or secularism), and there would be little to no conflict over ideology, faith or lifestyle. Very peaceful I’m sure, but also kind of horrible in a culturally dystopic sort of way.
Regarding those who propose that monogamy is the only natural way to love or conduct a relationship, I can only say that the hubris of this viewpoint is astounding. Likewise, anyone who claims that couples engaged in monogamy are either lying to themselves or each other is committing the same error. Non-monogamy doesn’t threaten monogamous relationships any more than monogamous relationships threaten non-monogamy, practically speaking. There is, however, one thing that damages both forms of commitment, and that is dishonesty.
Ironically, what monogamy and non-monogamy have in common is a deep reliance on trust, honesty and respect. Cheating occurs when one partner fails to adhere to the parameters of the relationship they are in. This means that if a man has sex with someone outside of his marriage and fails to tell his wife, that man has cheated, even if the marriage is open. Sex is only a symptom. The dishonesty employed to facilitate sex beyond the relationship’s parameters is the real betrayal, just as it is in instances of so-called monogamous cheating. That dishonesty signals a lack of respect for the relationship and the lied-to partner, and that lack of respect is a killer.
This is why I think Nick and Nora are such a tremendous example of a healthy committed relationship. It wouldn’t matter if their marriage were open, any more than it matters than it is, apparently, closed, (thought there are implications in Hammett’s book, if not in the film, that this may not entirely be the case). What matters is the respect with which they treat each other and their relationship.
Respect breeds trust and implicit honesty, which in turn fosters a dynamic in which jealousy and dishonesty have no place. The fictional relationship of Nick and Nora Charles is an ideal that transcends straw-house arguments and personal ideology. It transcends monogamy and non-monogamy. Theirs is a grown-up relationship, and I believe that, eighty years later, it’s time for the rest of us to grow up.